MRI study could pave way for understanding brain diseases like MS, physicists claim

2 Nov 2012

Researchers in the area of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) from the University of Nottingham say they have made a discovery that could give the medical profession a new tool to better diagnose and monitor neuro-degenerative diseases, such as multiple sclerosis (MS).

The physicists, from the Magnetic Resonance Centre at the University of Nottingham, believe their study shows why images of the brain produced using the latest MRI techniques are so sensitive to the direction in which nerve fibres run.

Their research paper has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science journal.

Based on current scientific knowledge of the molecular structure of myelin, the fatty sheath that encases nerve fibres, the physicists say they have come up with a new MRI model in which the nerve fibres are represented as long thin hollow tubes with special magnetic properties.

They believe this model will potentially allow for information about the nerve fibres, such as their size and direction, to be deduced via MRIs.

“While most MRI-based research focuses on tissue measurements at the millimetre length scale, our experimental scans on healthy human volunteers and modelling of the myelin sheath shows that much more detailed microscopic information relating to the size and direction of nerve fibres can be generated using fairly simple imaging techniques,” explained Dr Samuel Wharton, a research fellow at the Magnetic Resonance Centre.

“The results will give clinicians more context in which to recognise and identify lesions or abnormalities in the brain and will also help them to tailor different types of scan to a particular patient,” he said.

Dr Nikolaos Evangelou, a clinical associate professor who specialises in multiple sclerosis at the Nottingham University Hospitals Trust, said the research would pave the way for new ways of looking at nerve fibres in the brain.

“The more we understand about the nerves and the myelin around them, the more successful we are in studying brain diseases, such as multiple sclerosis,” he said.

The physicists behind the study believe their research will give scientists and clinicians a better understanding of the effects of nerve fibres and their orientation in MRIs, with potential applications in the diagnosis and monitoring of brain and nervous system diseases, such as MS, where there are known links to myelin loss.

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Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic